Israeli authorities on Monday rounded up dozens of African migrants slated for deportation, most of them from South Sudan, as the government weighs tough penalties against Israelis who help illegal aliens.
The Population and Migration Authority said in a statement that officers arrested 45 migrants from South Sudan, along with three Nigerians, two Ghanaians, two Chinese, one from Ivory Coast, one from the Philippines and one whose nationality is being checked.
Israeli public radio said that in at least two cases, during early-morning swoops in the Red Sea town of Eilat, women with young children were picked up as they walked on the streets and were driven away.
Journalist and rights activist Toni Lissi told army radio that suspects in the town were picked up on the street, in banks, at their places of work and in door-to-door searches.
"The people arrested were were taken on buses to detention centres. Their mobile phones were confiscated," she said.
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"Other immigrants are hiding in their homes, not daring to go out until things calm down,' she said.
An Israeli court on Thursday ruled that the lives of an estimated 1,500 migrants from South Sudan are no longer at risk in their homeland, clearing the way for their mass expulsion.
Community workers said they were led to understand that the migrants would have a least a week to put their affairs in order and report voluntarily for repatriation, but arrests began before dawn on Sunday, when eight South Sudanese and 17 others were taken into custody.
Israeli daily Haaretz said that a government committee on legislation had approved submission of draft bills which would raise the maximum penalty for Israelis who employed, housed or transported around the country illegal immigrants to five years in prison from two at present.
The bill is expected to go to parliament for a preliminary reading this week.
The interior ministry says that approximately 60,000 African immigrants have entered Israel illegally, including those from South Sudan, with which Israel has friendly relations.